1st January 2018. On a stormy New Year’s Eve, as most of us were safe in the comfort of our homes looking forward to seeing in the New Year with friends and family little did we know that a drama was unfolding at sea just off St Albans Head on the Jurassic Coast. During the last day of 2017 concern had been mounting steadily for a 1662ton cargo vessel, the MV Pilsum, which was drifting out control in Weymouth Bay while being battered by storm force winds. The Pilsum had suffered an engine failure earlier in the day and had attempted to anchor in Weymouth Bay to shelter from the storm and fix its engines. Unfortunately, with winds gusting to over 70mph the Pilsum’s anchor was unable to hold the vessel in position and in the gathering darkness the ship was dragged by the storm eastwards across Weymouth Bay towards St Albans Head near Swanage. The National Coastwatch stations at Portland Bill and St Alban’s Head had been monitoring the situation over the course of the afternoon and alerted the HM Coastguard to the mounting threat to the ship, its crew and cargo.
At 17:30 the lights of the drifting cargo ship became visible to Larry Sullivan and Brian Ellis, the duty watch keepers at NCI St Albans Head. It was clear to the two watch keepers that the Pilsum was in danger of being driven onto the rocks at St Albans Head and they continued to monitor the vessel’s progress while continuing to update the HM Coastguard control centre The seriousness of the situation became clear when they were told that Whitehall had been advised of the situation and the possibility of a vessel with its load of fuel oil being wrecked on the Jurassic Coast with serious consequences for both life and the environment. By 18:00 Weymouth RNLI Lifeboat had been called to the scene while the Poole tug ‘Kingston' was fighting it's way towards the Pilsum against the tide and gale force winds with the task of taking vessel in tow. In a rapidly deteriorating situation the St Albans Head Coastwatch team were reinforced by the Station Operations Manager Dave Hill and they continued to provide a commentary on the situation to HM Coastguard. As the possibility of a helicopter rescue increased, the NCI St Albans Head team were able to give details on the cloud ceiling and weather conditions as well as reporting on the position of the tug Kingston. At 19:30 in a deteriorating situation the decision was taken to launch the Swanage Lifeboat to add further emergency support. Over the next few hours, several attempts were made to pass a tow rope to the Pilsum and after several attempts, the Kingston was able to take the Pilsum under tow. With the situation coming under control, the Weymouth lifeboat was stood down at 21:30 as were the National Coastwatch teams at St Albans Head and Portland while the Swanage lifeboat escorted the Kingston, with the Pilsum safely in tow, into the shelter of Studland bay.
It had been a very close call and is an example of the commitment of all those involved. The National Coastwatch teams clearly proved their ability to provide invaluable assistance to the emergency services. Finally, when HM Coastguard stood down the weary watchkeepers at St Alban’s Head, they were able to catch up with their delayed, New Year's Eve celebrations in the knowledge that a shipwreck had been prevented, lives saved and an environmental calamity on a world heritage coastline averted.